Donington: time to stop the cynicism?

Renault demonstrates an F1 car at Donington in 2007

Renault demonstrates an F1 car at Donington in 2007

Donington Park?s redevelopment plans will be heard by Leicestershire District Council tomorrow.

Circuit owner Simon Gillett is confident his proposals will be supported by the council and one councillor has been quoted in favour of the proposals. Is it time to stop the cynicism about Donington?s plans?

A mountain to climb

I was as sceptical as anyone else when the FIA revealed during last year’s British Grand Prix weekend that the race would move to Donington Park in 2010.

Its owners need to raise money to bring the track up to modern standards (it last held an F1 race in 1993) and pay Bernie Ecclestone’s hosting fees. Unlike most Grands Prix the British round receives no funding from the government – and its chances of getting became even slimmer when Britain committed to hosting the 2012 Olympics for a ten-figure sum, which the government now admits it can ill afford.

Gillett also faces serious logistical challenges: getting the spectators in through Donington’s narrow access roads, and reaching compromises with nearby East Midlands Airport on traffic and the ability of F1 teams to use their transmitters.

On top of all that, should Donington fail to get its track sorted on time Bernie Ecclestone has said there is no alternative and he will not take F1 back to Silverstone in 2010. A similar scenario played out when Brands Hatch courted the British Grand Prix a few years ago. Ecclestone says Britain’s status as a historic F1 venue will not spare it, nor will the popularity of Lewis Hamilton:

Even if Lewis is world champion, we will simply say we will get on with the calendar and that England won’t be included.

A man with vision

Many of the journalists who have met Gillett have been impressed by his vision and imaginative solutions to Donington’s problems. Nigel Roebuck wrote:

Anyone who attended the one-off European Grand Prix at the circuit in 1993 will need no reminding of Donington?s perennial traffic problems. The race, run on Easter Sunday and in foul weather, attracted only a small crowd, yet it took for ever to get in and out of the place. MotoGP fans will tell you the same story to this day, even though so many are on bikes rather than in cars.

How, then, to cope with a crowd venturing to the only Formula 1 race to be held in this country? ??Park and ride?, that?s how. Cars, Gillett said, are not going to be welcomed to the track, and the plan is to have three large sites, well away from Donington, in which spectators will park, then travel on to the track by mass transit means. By this means, of course, traditional car parking areas at the circuit can be freed up for other purposes, such as larger-than-usual camping sites.

Gillett’s ‘park and ride’ plan has been met with ridicule from some but having been to big events in Britain I think it’s a sensible solution. I’ve used such systems at the British and Italian Grands Prix in recent years and they work fine. I don’t think Gillett’s plans to extend their use are unrealistic.

But the thorny question remains of how the whole thing is going to be paid for. James Allen wrote:

The bit I was sceptical about was the financing of the whole thing using a debenture scheme. I mean, can you imagine trying to find companies and individuals in this economic climate, willing to give you ??18k for a debenture and then commit to another ??7k a year? It was a good business model in the bull market and worked at Wembley and to a lesser extent Arsenal?s Emirates Stadium before the credit crunch came.

But the critical point, according to Gillett, is that the risk on the scheme doesn?t lie with him, it lies with his debenture partners IMG, the sports marketing firm and Goldman Sachs, the investment bank. He says that they committed to the programme before the credit crunch came, so he will get his money anyway whether they sell 10 debentures or 10,000. He gets the up-front money, they get the annual fee. If that is the case, then he certainly got his timing right and this event could well come off. And given that he also claims to have negotiated very good terms with Bernie for the five years, in other words he?s got the race on the cheap, you can see why he was looking quite pleased with himself at the Forum.

This raises two interesting points: first, if the money really is already in place, and the institutions he’s procured from aren’t going anywhere, then the whole project looks much more promising. It’s a big ‘if’, though.

And the second point is this: has Gillett got a favourable deal because of Ecclestone’s desire to get Silverstone out of the picture?

D-Day for Donginton

Donington F1 track map 2010 (click to enlarge)

Donington F1 track map 2010 (click to enlarge)

The outcome of tomorrow’s planning meeting is crucial for Donington. Gillett is convinced a positive decision is a foregone conclusion, saying recently: “From a minute after the decision this Thursday, we plan to be out there with our shovels.”

There’s been mixed signals from the councils involved, however. The director of community services at Derbyshire district council praised the “substantial economic opportunities” offered by the plan. But another councillor was less complimentary about other aspects of the plan, claiming Donington’s desire to restrict traffic at East Midlands Airport was “completely and utterly bonkers“.

Tomorrow’s planning hearing is the acid test for Gillett’s ambitions. Failure to get approval could kill the project – and with it the immediate future of the British Grand Prix. There might not be enough time to get a new application submitted and approved and get all the construction work done in time for the race in 2010. But rejecting a plan that promises to bring a major injection of funding into the area would be an unpopular move for the council.

Convinced?

I get the feeling that people are warming to the idea that Donington could work. At the time of writing, only 22% of people have voted for the prediction that the British Grand Prix will be axed for 2010 in yesterday’s poll.

Do you think the 2010 British Grand Prix at Donington will happen? Is Bernie Ecclestone trying to get the race away from Silverstone – or off the calendar entirely in favour of another remote location with a government backer paying top rates? Have your say in the comments.

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29 comments on Donington: time to stop the cynicism?

  1. I am wondering if deep down Bernie has a feeling that Donnington might not be granted permission to upgrade the circuit. Then it will give him the perfect excuse to not have a British Grand Prix and put a new venue on the F1 calendar. Somewhere like Russia or another Arab country where he can make much more money than having a GP in Britain. I think if Donnington dosen’t hold the BGP it will be a travesty that an F1 GP will not be held in Britain. I have never been to Donnington but i know a couple of people who have and they said it is a nightmare place. So it seems even if Donnington is granted permission on Thursday, they will have a lot of work to do to get the circuit updated for the 2010 BGP

  2. Its not exactly cynicism aimed at the Donington Park project, I am amazed at how quickly they have got organised and how incredible the plans are.
    I just think the BRDC needs to warn the organisers about the way Bernie works – how once we get to 2010, even after other series have raced on the new circuit, after fans and media have praised the buildings, facilities and infrastructure, after Hammy, Alonso and Massa have adored the circuit after testing, he will still turn round two months before the race and demand a higher fee and ‘upgrades’ for no known reason, other than the fact that he can…..

  3. Adrian said on 7th January 2009, 8:26

    I’ve been to Donnington on a number of occasions and agree that it can be a nightmare to get in and out of by car. That said I went to the British GP at Silverstone in 2007 and used the Park & Ride system and it was smooth as can be, to the extent that 2 hours after the race finished we were sat in a motorway service station, halfway back up to Leeds!!

    As a circuit, Donnington is fantastic and it’s located much more centrally, while Silverstone required an overnight stay for us travelling from the north, Donnington is (in normal traffic at least) only an hour and a half drive. Me and my dad are planning on attending the first GP there (assuming all goes well) and will travel there and back by motorbike, so shouldn’t suffer too much from traffic.

    Good luck to Mr Gillet and if Bernie is hoping that Donnington fails, I hope he’s disappointed!!

  4. MarkS said on 7th January 2009, 8:37

    If the Grand Prix can’t be held at Donnington then it seems Bernie isn’t going to let the British Grand Prix go back to Silverstone so we end up with no race. Therefore, we all need to do everything we can to support Donnington.

    There is a mountain of work to do, if Donnington is going to work. I had my doubts to start with. However, I’ve been very impressed with their planning so far and it seems that Gillet is truely committed to getting this to work. The more I see, the more confident I become of this whole project. With a new track, new facilities and a new approach to getting there this could be really good.

  5. Why does everybody, including the Brits, spell ‘Donington’ with four Ls… ;)

  6. HounslowBusGarage said on 7th January 2009, 9:03

    It’s not so much cynicism as realism.
    There’s a vast amount of work to be done in a very short amount of time. Mr Gillett will definitely have to be out there with his shovel – and he’d better not take Saturdays off either.
    That apart, we hear so much crap from Ecclestone (such as ‘all the teams are in favour of medals/standard engines’, ‘Formula One doesn’t need America’ etc), that one becomes immediately suspicious of both his motives and methods.
    We all recognise that Bernie’s loyalties extend only to his bank balance and that any method of increasing that is fair, according to him.

  7. After reading James Allen’s post I also have the feeling that Bernie has some special agenda, perhaps as you suggest above, simply to get rid of Silverstone … Ecclestone priced US, Canada, France, probably Hockenheim out of the F1 but yet he gives it “on the cheap” to Donnington Park … I doubt he did that out of his love for Mr. Gillet … Unfortunatelly James Allens rarely (if ever) replies comments under his posts so we may not get his opinion on that …

    I do hope that they get their permit as having no British GP would simply make no sense. I however still can’t understand why it all had to go down this complicated and expensive way instead of simply fixing what was broken at Silverstone …

  8. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 7th January 2009, 9:44

    I should be doing an interview with Simon Gillett on Friday so if anyone’s got any question suggestions please let me know…

  9. Its Hammer time said on 7th January 2009, 10:53

    Keith, what a fantastic opportunity to get to speak to the organiser!

    My question suggestion is this: Cars are to be strongly dissuaded from attending, will motorbikes/ people planning to camp be similarly barred from arriving directly at the track.

    I realise my question is a bit piffy & specific thats perhaps not really related to the racing itself but a growing number of race fans now attend on two wheels to beat the jams. I was at home in South East London only 2 hours after the race ended in July.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 7th January 2009, 11:32

      Will keep that in mind – from what I’ve read the organisers have said that people camping will be allowed to bring cars to the track, as will visitors with disabilities and VIP guests. I don’t know about bikes.

  10. Adrian said on 7th January 2009, 11:16

    HounslowBusGarage, yes there is a lot of work to be done, but let’s face it, the construction industry is struggling at the moment so there will be no shortage of workmen.

  11. Personally, I’d like to know exactly how he sees the fans fitting into all this. I’ve heard plenty about what a wonderful opportunity this is for Simon Gillett, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, wealthy motor collectors who might want to lease a house with track access, wealthy companies who might want to pay for corporate hospitality, local B&Bs, the East Midlands business community, private plane owners who might want to fly to the races and Bernie Ecclestone.

    But as for Joe Public – we seem to largely represent a transport conundrum the circuit would rather be without. To me the British GP is a wonderful national event that I look forward to greatly. Not a uniquely profitable business opportunity for some promoter that sees it more in terms of entertainment than sport. Say what you like about the facilities at Silverstone – and if I never had to encounter one of their burger and donut vans again I’d be a happy camper – but at least I feel that my proletarian bum is welcome on its uncomfortable plastic seat, and I can generally afford to park it there.

    A couple of points about planning – Gillett is right that the circuit *should* get permission. It will be very strange if it doesn’t, since it has been working with planning officers for months and things should have been thrashed out behind the scenes well in advance of the meeting.

    The South Derbyshire thing was also, in my humble opinion as someone who has spent far too much of their lives reporting on planning hearings, hugely overstated in importance by a lot of people, including Autosport. It is routine for any neighbouring authority to be consulted on a big development and just as routine for that authority to concentrate on the strategic aspects (economic benefits to the region) rather than the local one (environmental and planning consideratons) which are outside its remit. Again, South Derbyshire said exactly what you would expect them to.

  12. Scott Joslin said on 7th January 2009, 11:49

    Keith, can you ask him about spectator numbers. Silverstone is limited to 90,000 I think, and there is quite a bit of space to fit them in, plus the many Grandstands too. But with them building on the inside of the Craner Curves, that is where traditionally most spectators watch. I am not sure where they are going to go – Could it be that most of the tickets are Grandstand only?

  13. Steven Roy said on 7th January 2009, 12:27

    I don’t think there is the slightest chance of there being a GP at Donington. I still believe this is just a tactic by Bernie to beat up Silverstone just as his deal to give the contract to Brands Hatch was. In the end the 2010 British GP will be at Silverstone and Mr Gillett and Co will pay Bernie a few million to get out of their contract as the Brands people did.

    Keith’s post concentrates on the positive aspects of the situation and I understand why but amongst the negatives is that Mr Gillett’s partner left almost as soon as the deal was done. They were always shown as a pair and now half of the pair is no longer there. That must cause problems.

    The idea of shutting down a commercial airport is insane. Given the problems Moto GP have had with the airport it is a certainty that F1 would need to make many changes to its normal set up to keep things below the required height. The airport has to operate normally or it will be in breach of its contracts with airlines, retail facilities and other airports so the circuit and F1 have to accommodate the airport and not vice versa.

    Regardless of public statements I refuse to believe IMG have written a blank cheque and I cannot imagine anyone is going to buy debentures in something as shaky as a new F1 circuit. Equally I don’t believe there are 150 mega-rich people who want to live next to Donington and under the flight path of an airport 1 mile up the road. If I was mega-rich and wanted a house on the edge of a track to house my fast cars and have the right to play in the track somewhere like the new test track in the Algarve would be a lot more appealing than Donington.

    Bernie spotted a mug he could use to apply pressure to the BRDC and who would write him a cheque for a few million to default on the contract. This is Brands part 2. There will not be a GP at Donington.

  14. Its Hammer time said on 7th January 2009, 12:30

    Keith, ask him when he plans to start selling tickets. That should raise a few bob for the diesel in his construction equipment. I would buy my 2009 tickets early.

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